Monday, March 23, 2009

Paper Thin

I once read that the children of alcoholics often grow up to be very sensitive because part of surviving the dysfunctional environment of their homes involves anticipating moods and reacting to them in a manner which diminishes their suffering. If this is so, it would also explain why so many children of alcoholics are also prone to addiction themselves. Increased sensitivity means increased emotional pain and addiction often is a means of emotionally anesthetizing yourself.

My father is an alcoholic and my mother probably has had some sort of undiagnosed depressive disorder for most of her life. Growing up with both of them, I recall moments of difficulty and tension and trying not to get on the wrong side of either of them for fear of bringing on more misery. I'm guessing that part of the reason I worked so hard at school was to keep them happy with me and show that I was "good" and therefore not deserving of the verbal wrath that sometimes came my way.

I've forgiven both of my parents for the damage they did to me as a result of how damaged they are. Neither of them has changed much, though my father has gotten a bit better and my mother worse as the years have gone by. I realize that they are in pain, too, and that they never meant to mess up their kids by their actions. They were just doing what they could to cope, and sometimes that involved random spreading of their misery to available targets without even knowing what or why they were doing it.

Unfortunately, growing up in the way I did coupled with perhaps some genetic predispositions has left me thin-skinned. I tend to be hyper-aware of the environment around me and the actions of people toward me. This is almost certainly a lingering response pattern to how I grew up. I'm still looking to anticipate how the people around me are going to behave so that I can alter my actions such that I will endure the least possible emotional pain.

Fortunately for me, my husband is a calm, placid, emotionally stable person who extremely rarely has any sort of negative response to anything I do or say. I can still read him like a book from his tone of voice or small changes in body language, but what I tend to read are things like 'he's about to ask me if I'd mind making coffee' or 'he's tired or out of sorts' right now, but hasn't even realized it himself yet. Those who wonder why I get effusive about how wonderful my husband is may understand a bit better now. He's emotionally a warm, comforting blanket to someone who grew up being emotionally (though fortunately not physically) beaten up.

The main problem for me with being so thin-skinned and overly attentive to how I'm regarded is that I live in Tokyo and I'm not Japanese. Living in an environment which is over-stimulating at best and around people who are constantly reacting to you because you are different can be very hard. Part of the process I continue to go through in Japan is to build a psychological wall between myself and people who I encounter. Every time I leave the apartment, I have to consciously decide to try hard not to pay attention to them and how they are reacting to me. This wall is necessary not only to protect myself, but to stop me from building up anger toward them for stolen glances, gawking, pointing, and commenting rudely in Japanese about the gaijin while laboring under the incorrect assumption that I don't know what they're saying or doing.

It took me a long time before I even decided to put this wall up. While I knew I was sensitive, my initial response to people who behave in ways that cause me pain was to be angry at them and react with angry looks or by saying or doing something to try and get them to stop. Essentially, I was trying to "fight back", but the truth is that you can't control other people in this way and it's completely energy-draining to even try in a city as big as Tokyo and when you stick out like a sore thumb in a culture which has serious issues with anyone who is obviously different. It was exhausting and ineffective.

One of the things that I realized some time ago was that this need to put up a wall between me and the Japanese around me was fueling my lack of desire to learn to speak or read Japanese better. Not understanding completely actually made my life easier because it shut me off from pain. It's much easier to build a wall when the voices around you are just noise and not actual communication. It also gave me an excuse to put a buffer between myself and any potential cross-cultural issues because someone else always did the communicating for me. When I worked in a Japanese office, my Australian boss, who spoke Japanese quite well (despite his protestations to the contrary at times), was my protection from all sorts of problems. At home, my husband did the talking when it was necessary. I used both of them as protection from possible pain and stress, and it has worked really well from that angle.

For years, I've successfully lived in a bit of a cocoon to keep my paper thin skin protected to some extent from the pain I might suffer from those around me. While it might seem that a person in my shoes might come to regret this insulation, isolation, and willful effort not to fully engage in the environment around her, I don't regret it one bit. It's what I needed to survive, and I don't know what sort of emotional state I'd be in if I hadn't had my various "buffers". The difference between people like me and people who have a thicker skin is that I am living in the equivalent of a cultural downpour with painful hailstones bashing into me and they are experiencing a light sprinkling of rain. They didn't ask for, earn, or build their ability to not experience everything with the volume turned up to 10 anymore than I asked to be the way I am. That's just the way it is, and they can't know what it's like until they have lived a few decades in my shoes.

The good thing about realizing why you live your life the way you do is that it gives you the ability to choose another path of coping. About a year ago, I started to dabble in Japanese study again because I know at least some of the reasons why I tried to shun improvement for so long. There are other reasons, and there are even some pretty good excuses (like I actually rarely need to speak it, oddly enough), but the bottom line is that I was setting the terms for how I dealt with life in Japan so that I could have a filter against pain. I'm changing the type of filter I use, and hoping that I end up all the better for it.

18 comments:

Kelly said...

I understand abit of where you are coming from Orchid. My father was an alcoholic who regularly beat my mother up (though she was just as strong-willed as he was and occasionally chased him round the street with a butcher knife) and my brother started abusing drugs at age 13 and then abusing me.

After my father died of a massive heart attack from the smoking and alcohol, my brother used to abuse and bully me non-stop. My mother was so worn down by that time that she never stuck up for me even though i was 14 years younger than my brother, I was around 7 years old at the time.

Our house was a fearful place to be for me and i could only find solace from the abuse in my bedroom, and like you, i tried to change myself to gauge people's reactions so that I could get away if i sensed that something was going to blow.

It wasn't unusual for the FBI to be knocking on our door about drugs, i remember one time i opened the door and there were two men in long black coats standing their flashing their cards.

I didn't escape that hell until i married Yasu at 25. Yasu is my saviour and like your husband is to you, my blanket of protection.

I feel the same way about Japan as you do, thats why i told Yasu i could never live there and he agreed to live and work in australia. I can't stand the looks, the sniggers, the gawks, it makes me angry and also depressed.

The difference with me is that i always had a big interest in Japan, that was my escape, i used it as a tool to excel in school and escape the scary home life that i had. But when i went to japan I found i was at odds with the way i felt about Japanese culture and Japanese people. I tended to really hate the Japanese for gawking at me, and when I came home i didn't have anything to do with Japanese anything for 12 months. I was so severely depressed when i came home to aus, i had to see a psychiatrist who told me to stay away from Japanese things for that period of time. I didn't even have contact with my in-laws as the psychiatrist thought it might take me over the edge.

I haven't thought of that for a very long time but reading your post made me remember.

I guess, like my mother, i've got that strong will and i didn't let it get me down for too long. I have recovered since then and my interest in the japanese language and culture is as strong as ever.

Abuse has different effects on differernt people. At least you have your husband to lean on, that is one good thing.

I guess i have it much easier in aus because i'm not out of my comfort zone so even when things get me down i have my familiarities to calm me.

I guess from reading your blogs i kind of had a different view of you that you were really brave and strong, i had no idea from your writing that you were "paper-thin" as you call it.

Orchid64 said...

I think that a lot of children have similar experiences, though hopefully not too many. Certainly, your situation was quite awful - worse than mine as I had a supportive sibling and not an abusive one and my parents never hurt each other physically.

I don't know if I'm brave, but I do believe I'm strong and I think that enduring the hardship has helped me grow in ways I never would have (which is not to say it's necessarily a good thing - but growth often only occurs from difficulty and pain). I don't think I could have endured in Japan the way I have if I weren't strong. It's one thing to stand stand in the freezing rain when you have a large umbrella and a warm coat, but another to stand out there naked and shivering. I think it takes a lot more strength for someone like me than for the average person to endure any life, let alone this one.

That's not to say I think I'm great or anything (far from it), but I do think I'm mentally strong and getting stronger all the time. However, I often feel at the brink of what I can take, and need to step back.

I think one thing you can learn from being in Japan that it's a lot easier to love it if you don't live here because the reality is not nearly as nice up close and personal, as we've both found out. However, a lot of people argue with me about this, but most of them are male and/or of Asian descent and therefore don't endure the same type of behavior those of us who stick out easily (and who are not perceived as too strong to overtly treat badly as is the case for many foreign men) do.

Kelly said...

Oh yeah, i totally agree with you when you say that reality is far worse than the fantasy. I'm happy being interested in the culture without actually living in it.

And i have also talked to guys who seem to think this is not the norm, but being a foreign woman in Japan seems to be much harder than being a foreign man. I also found it harder being a foreign wife, and i found that even the concession that Japanese wives have, I didn't have. When I've explained that to men they just don't get it and try to argue with me that it's not harder than they have it, but unless they step into my shoes of course they wouldn't know.

Thanks for your interesting post Orchid. :)

Lulu said...

This post touched very close to home for me. My father is also an alcoholic who we now know has chronic depression.

I can`t go into it now but seeing this post and reading this post had me nodding my head in agreement with a lot of what you said.

Kelly I feel for you also- my situation has never been as bad as that and I have a supportive family and supportive partner. I am glad you got out and found a new life with Yasu.

Orchid64 said...

Kelly: Again and again, I have said that foreign women have it much harder in Japan than foreign men, but I always get a dismissive response. However, I have never known a foreign woman who has lived in Japan and not suffered some pretty serious problems. That is not to say that there are none, but just I've never known any. Most are either angry or depressed for various reasons. Often they don't even know why they feel the way they do because I think there's always a strong desire to cope and their feelings get attributed to some other stimulus.

Of course, it could be that I've just known a lot of angry and depressed people. ;-)

Lulu: I've read some of your posts about your father's situation and have felt a lot of sympathy for you and for him. It's difficult because you know that they have a disease which is hard to break free from.

Thanks to both of you for your comments and your empathy.

Girl Japan said...

This is an excellent post Orchid. May I ask what were some of the things that made you angry- just that I want to compare my notes with yours- so I don't feel so alone in my way of thinking.

At times I feel that ignorance is bliss with speaking, reading and writing Japanese, because I am very combative, if anyone is rude or strikes a blow to me for no reason other than I am NOT Japanese- I want do more than say a few choice words, I am just minding my own business.

I have been known to wear my ipod as well but I don't think it is fair that we/I should have to live this way, to be honest I was a social person before Japan and became more closed than my normal self- I was feeling rather confident one day in myself, the way I looked and then I hear a mum and their daughter- the mum RIGHT in front of me like I am stupid or something says "gosh she has BIG breast" in Japanese and used her hands to illustrate it, but I no where like those two sisters or have faux boobies for sure....

At that point I wanted to say-- "look bitch" you wish you had a D cup..lol- obviously that was my immaturity and anger speaking.

But I don't think I need to swallow that either, not fair is what I say, and I did not go out for a week after that, just to work-- somehow I have found regardless of the confidence I have, a comment like that will render me helpless... how does one handle this... for a long time I avoided the J-language because I knew how combative I would be, on good days I can look in the mirror and say.. ah..jealousy but not always and during those weak moments.. it freaking sucks, I want to cry, I want to scream and blame myself for marrying a Japanese guy..blah blah..

Orchid64 said...

There have been all sorts of things that have been done which made me angry. I used to wear contact lenses and was sitting on the train one day with my husband and one of my lenses got something stuck under it and I was in pain. I had to pluck it out and try to rinse it (with eyedrops as I had no saline) without a mirror and I had some difficulty. Three women sat across from us and mocked what I was doing by pretending to dig around in their eye and then laughing uproariously.

There are also always the open-mouthed wide-eyed stares that sometimes come with a pointing finger and "gaijin da," and sometimes just are a silent expression of astonishment that a creature such as I is in their presence.

Of course, there have also been comments about my body, my clothes, my hair, etc. If I opened my mouth and actually said much of anything in Japanese, I'm sure there'd be some bad response to my awful Japanese speaking as well.

Mainly, there are lots of stolen glances, sometimes in rapid succession and then the lean and whisper to the friend standing next to the gawking party who then initiates the same routine of catching glimpses and once the partner gets an eyeful, there's a furious exchange of opinions (usually whispered). I don't know what they think they're doing. They can't be so stupid as to believe I can't tell what they're up to. I'm not sure why they bother to even try to be circumspect about it.

The thing is that I don't think being combative does anything to control the behavior. I used to think that intimidating them would make them think twice before they did it to the next person, but I realized that I was allowing their behavior to control me. I was allowing them to make me into this angry, combative, and tense person and surrendering a lot of my power to them. Essentially, they were pushing the buttons and I was responding.

Like you, I used to be a far more social person and remain in relative isolation most of the time. One of the reasons I probably hate shopping is because of the feeling that I open myself up to that sort of thing.

The thing is that the Japanese people who I know one-on-one are wonderful, kind and show nothing but gracious behavior toward me. It's only when you encounter the random masses that you get this awful behavior. As long as they can regard you as an object or a zoo exhibit, they feel free to use you to entertain themselves and elevate their sense of esteem by ruthlessly judging you. Given this, I think the best way to respond is either not to react at all (hence my mental wall which I put in place when I go out), or if I fail in blocking them, I look them in the eyes and either wave or say "konnichiwa." This embarrasses them immensely because they are not only obviously caught out but you've engaged them and they can't so easily view you like an object.

This type of response rather than a combative one is gratifying because it gives me the power to control them. Usually, when I respond in this way (and usually, I just shut them out), they never look at me again or carry on any more. It's me pushing their buttons back, only doing it in a kind way rather than an angry one. I believe they may actually be shamed by what they did at that point, as they should be.

Ultimately, I think that it's the sense of powerlessness in those situations that is so infuriating. It's like being emotionally spit-balled at all the time and just having to take it. The problem is that fighting back has a negligible effect when it's you "against" so many people, so getting them to see you as a person is a far more useful response. That being said, I still get angry on occasion and I completely understand your response. It's the one I have had during a lot of my time here, but I just couldn't live like that anymore. It just wore me out.

Emsk said...

Thankfully I can't speak of any type of abuse, emotional or physical, but I can attest to a large amount of unpleasantness from my father. He had a pretty hard time of it growing up. His marriage to my mum lasted a couple of years - they were young and from different backgrounds. He'd never had the mod-cons my mum said she needed to be a parent and he pretty much ballsed up his relationship with the two of us.

Having said that the poor guy didn't have much of a template to go on and they were teenagers. But he never got over losing his daughter and as a result he internalised a lot of anger. He totally smothered daughter #2 (he's always been more daughter-orientated). The long and short of it is after re-establishing a relationship with me as an adult, he pushed me away while making it more than clear that 2 was everything I wasn't. My fantastic Californian bro-in-law had to metaphorically fight our dad for his daughter!

Just before I came to Japan, I realised that every time I met him I left with my heart feeling like a stone, and that leaving would be an opportunity to distance myself from him. It's not even as if he doesn't love me - there's love, but it's warped love, and forgive me if I'd like mine more straightforward.

It feels a bit whiny going on about it here, given some people's stories. I guess because I had my maternal grandfather who, although not overly affectionate, clearly adored me, I knew early on that this was a relationship I should keep at arm's length.

Emsk said...

Wanted to put this bit in another comment - the subject of getting mad in Japan. I was very lucky, or maybe I never noticed that people were sending me up.

Having said that, I guess if my child gawped at Japanese people in the UK or I saw adults hassle people just for being Japanese I'd think it was pretty rude.

And I did get sick of being the gaijin monkey and having people bother me in cafes just for being foreign when all I wanted was some peace and quiet after work.

During my last month in Japan I was strolling with a Japnese friend when a kid threw an apple at me. I was shocked (and the only gaijin)! But his parents couldn't stop apologising - and he got a telling off too.

Orchid64 said...

I didn't notice as much early on. It started to really hit me around the middle or end of the second year. That's when I entered "stage 2" and just hated everything here and bitched about most things. I think that everything was so fresh and overwhelming at first that just navigating and understanding was filling up all of my receptors. I also rarely went out and about alone compared to now. I tended to walk around with coworkers or the CH and I think I was pretty absorbed in the surroundings.

It's also possible that Tokyo is just worse. The people in Tokyo are known for a certain attitude and arrogance relative to other people in Japan. When I visited Osaka, I did not have the same experiences as I have had in Tokyo.

I'm sure that overtly racist behavior is regional everywhere, but I think the unblinking and unrepentant manner in which one might experience it in Japan is a reflection of the way in which anyone who is different is ostracized in some manner, whether they can help being different or not. In the West, we tend to differentiate between those who can and cannot control their appearance (or behavior) public. Japanese do not. We would not treat someone rudely for something we felt they had no control over.

I recall that you wrote about a horrible experience at a party with a Japanese woman doing something really gross to you. That may or may not have been disrespectful behavior (well, I call it assault) that she did because you were a foreigner.

I will note that you may not have gotten the same response from the parents if you had been alone rather than with other Japanese people. The presence of a Japanese person will generally control the worst behavior of others. They don't care about you, but they do care about the opinions and responses of the Japanese people who obviously accompany you. I know that sounds cynical, but I have a lot of experience with this. Being with a Japanese person is the best protection. Being with a male foreigner comes next in line. Being with another female foreigner is next, and being alone essentially makes you a moving target.

Kelly said...

It seems like all of us have had damaging relationships in our lives at some point and Emsk yours is no lesser than anyone elses. Thank you for sharing.

You know I actually think that tokyo is alot easier for a foreigner. I don't get stared at half as much as i do in the rural places like Sendai, Aomori and Hokkaido. When I get the train there are usually quite a few other foreigners including some african americans so I think tokyo is pretty much used to seeing gaijin.

The salarymen on the subway are rude and arrogant because they walk towards you and expect you to move out the way for them (when i didn't i was pushed aside by one) but apart from that I've never had any problems with friendliness in tokyo, i've always found that people are pretty friendly there. And in Hokkaido, some people are not so friendly because i'm probably the first gaijin they've ever seen in their life and they are too nervous to talk so they just ignore me or gawk at me.

By far the friendliest people i have ever experienced is in Aomori, they just go out of their way to help me when i've been there, even they are no relation. :)

Orchid64 said...

Well, obviously, I can't agree about Tokyo because I've been here for 20 years and experienced plenty of rudeness. That being said, most of it is on the trains or quite local (in residential areas) and less of it is in the shopping districts. It makes me wonder if the "small town" thing applies mainly to older people (my area is full of old people).

Kelly said...

Hmm for me living in the rural parts i've found the younger ones are the rudest and the older ones are the kindest.

Girl Japan said...

At first Orchid, I was feeling the "coffee table book" aspects of Japan- celebrity like- at first I used to love woman coming up to me asking me what skin care I use, or where did I get this or that, most likely just to strike up a conversation, but other times I have been followed around by men in super markets.. WITH MY HUSBAND-- and I was on cloud 9 being called a Doll or Kawaii... BUT

Then there are the other 50%. The boob comment which I don't understand because I think some of the bras here a fabulous 34F but I felt like I was being cast aside as some zoo animal for not being or looking like them, for the mum to illustrate it-- Oh.. Orchid I was so tempted, that I started having a bit of a complex about it.. never before, never before would I think twice about going here or there.

I hated the fact that when I wore a suit, those who passed by would say.. oh maybe she is from England, when I dressed down.. I got the Canadian or American Question.. -- Don't get it, could be unrelated.

70% has been normal and pleasant but the other % gave me some complexes that I never had before- being told what color lipstick I should or should not wear...

I still have a love/hate relationship but-- something my husbands fails to understand.. his point being "they are just admiring you, blah blah" yea, sounds good but to me it sounds negative, it sounds like I have all these points that stick out.

I at some point stopped going to the mall alone, being followed by men and woman.. that is kinda creepy, and then I feel like I am under some spotlight... I know it is THEIR problem, THEIR ignorance at least for the uneducated blabbering idiots but that does not make me feel any better, do you think the "wall" is best?

I feel like I have to categorize my surroundings..

Emsk said...

Orchid, you've reminded me of the horrible experience I had with this total trollop at a party. I must've tried to forget about it. I only hope one day the favour is returned. I did tell my manager why I would no longer make social chit-chat with her and she agreed and said she didn't want to know her either, so there was Japanese support. If anyone would like to know about it, here it is:

http://emskaroonie.blogspot.com/2007/12/would-you-do-this-to-your-sister.html

Orchid64 said...

I remembered the incident you linked to because it was so appalling. Really, she sexually assaulted you. I actually meant to mention it in one of my comments, but forgot to squeeze it into one of my verbose replies.

I do wonder if she would have behaved the same way with a Japanese woman or if that was disrespect saved particularly for the foreign woman. The response of the other party attendees didn't encourage one to think well of them either. They should have called her off.

Girl Japan said...

Did not mean to blabber so much .. sorry! It just came pouring out.. lol

Orchid64 said...

Blabbering is good, and interesting. :-)